Saturday, September 27, 2008

Idaho Bird Observatory - Hawks and Songbirds

It finally worked out for Karyn and I to make it up the rough 4x4 road to the Idaho Bird Observatory.  The Idaho Bird Observatory is a bird banding station for songbirds, raptors, and owls. Today we planned to take in the later parts of the day's songbird banding and participate in the early parts of the hawk watch and hawk banding.

Lucky Peak mountain, where the Idaho Bird Observatory is located, is a major stop on the fall bird migratory route.  The Idaho mountains funnel down to this peak where the birds must refuel before the long flight across the desert of Southern Idaho.  The research station has been operating there for over 15 years.

The songbird banding begins at sunrise and operates for 5 hours each day. There are a series of eight mist nets that capture songbirds traveling low through the brush.  The team of researchers and volunteer patrol the nets every 20-30 minutes bringing any captured birds back to a centrally located station where they are identified, aged, measured, weighed, and banded.  The birds vary through the fall. Today there were mainly Ruby-crowned Kinglets, White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Chipping Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and this Red-breasted Nuthatch.


After lunch we headed out to the Hawk Watch area.  Here they count the numbers and types of raptors and vultures flying South. We watched large Kettles of Turkey Vultures flying by.  The largest had 42 vultures in it, another had 29.  The other birds included Red-tailed Hawks, Swainson's Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, American Kestrels, Common Ravens, Golden Eagles, Northern Harrier, and possibly a Merlin.

Down the hill a hundred yards from the hawk watch is the hawk banding station.  Here they use live prey, non-native birds, to lure in hawks so that they can be captured. We didn't get to go down to the trapping station, but the researchers did bring two captured birds up for us to observe.  Both were male Sharp-shipped Hawks.


This first bird wasn't too worked up, allowing us to admire his feathers from various angles.


The second bird was calm, but then made it very clear that he wanted to be free. It is amazing how loud their screech can be when you are only a few feet away. 


It was a beautiful day on the mountain. Now we have to decide if we will return next weekend for Owl banding, which occurs at night.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Third of a semester done

Its hard to believe I have just completed the fifth week of school. It is going by very quickly. A few ups and downs, a few surprises, and quite a bit a learning. I am very glad I took the step to jump back in.

Lets start with my technical communications class. I did well, receiving A's on the first three assignments. The fourth was the issue. It was a group project. The professor assigned the groups based upon our profiles we submitted. I was assigned into a group that consistent of myself and two other non-traditional students.  Since this is a web delivered class, I had not actually met the other individuals in person. Since almost all my recent working experience is with remote teams, many of which I have never met, this was nothing new.  I took the initiative two weeks before the assignment to introduce myself over email, explain my concern about waiting until the last minute, and to propose a process which would ensure a quality product with good contribution from all. I even proposed to write the first draft.  The other two agreed. This would be the last I would hear from one of them.  The first intermediate deadline came and past.  I was the only one to complete that step.  I wrote the first draft and submitted to the others. One of the others submitted a rework of the first paragraph and promised more later. This would be the last I would hear from either person.  I submitted the paper on time with no acknowledgment from either.  I was pissed off to no end.  The paper received an 88 which I was happy with, but the lack of contribution was very annoying.  My grade average is still in the A range. My biggest issue is that I have three more collaborative assignments with the same people.

On to the good news, Biology.  I have truly enjoyed this class. I am still reading many chapters ahead and have maintained a perfect score so far on 4 quizzes.  I expect to have achieved close to that on my 5th quiz and first exam, which will be returned to me on Tuesday. We have studied the foundational biology and chemistry concepts, cell structures, membrane, and started metabolism this last week. Photosynthesis lectures and labs begin next week. There is a ton of new concepts and lots of new vocabulary. This was one of the areas where I was concerned when I started.  I was afraid that the detailed terminology would be an issue. Obviously from my performance so far, that issue has not presented itself.  I have put extra effort into memorization which has helped.

I have been thinking about what I might be able to take next semester.  I need to continue into the second half of General Biology, but I also hope to get into Ornithology. I will have to get the professor's approval as a full year of General Biology is a prerequisite.  I would only have completed the first half, but would be taking teh second half in parallel.  I want to push it as Ornithology is only offered every two years.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Economic thoughts

While out on a bike ride today I did some thinking about our current economic conditions. It fired me up enough to write the following letter to my representatives.

Representative Simpson, Senator Crapo, Senator Craig,

I hope that a lot of your attention has been tuned in to the economic crisis which our country is currently experiencing. This clearly has world-wide ramifications. I listened to a fair amount of the media coverage of this past week's events and specifically our president's recommendations. I have come to the following conclusions that I would like to share with you.

I do support the president's bailout plan with some very important required changes. Specifically:

1. I do not believe that any bailout should occur until the oversight and regulations are put into place to ensure that this doesn't happen again. Otherwise, our taxpayers dollars are likely to be wasted.

2. I absolutely disagree with the proposal that the bailout be orchestrated by Secretary Paulson, with no oversight from Congress. This has been reported to have been proposed by the president. Lack of oversight led to this problem, lack of oversight of the bailout process is irresponsible government.

3. We need to make sure that the money goes to those individuals who were ripped off by the greedy people on Wall Street and not into the pockets of the greedy people on Wall Street.  Might I suggest you start with our armed forces, both active duty and reserve, who are both victims of predator practices and suffering financial hardships, not to mention fighting in a war.

4. We need to ensure that we fund enough to keep the economy from collapsing and no more. I do not believe in buy an economy, but I do believe is saving a system.

5. We need to pay for this plan in revenue and not debt. Borrowing money to cover a mistake, is making another mistake. My family taught me and my school taught me that if you get in trouble you should step back, regroup, make compromises, and work your way out of it.  Debt is rarely the answer.  Might I suggest a capital gains tax increase as a reasonable way to target the get rich quick predators. A corporate tax would also be advised.  I understand it will slow the economic recovery, but I don't believe that is a bad thing. Slower growth will allow us to ensure we build a solid economic base and not another house of cards.

Thank you for your time.  Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments.

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Wolf population update

If you read the mainstream media or listen to any politicians in the western states, you probably have a sense that the wolf population is skyrocketing with no possible end in sight. Those of us who follow the wolf issue know that the wolf population peaked in Yellowstone National Park three years ago and will peak in Idaho and Montana as well. My comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and to the Idaho Fish and Game were on this issue. Specifically, we need to allow the wolf population to reach its full potential to achieve the full ecosystem value from the wolves and to enable dispersion to other areas (Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado).

Even though the population growth in Idaho slowed to 8% last year, the media and politicians have still used the 24% growth number from pervious years. Another favorite ploy they use to mislead the residents of Idaho is to talk about Idaho wolves, but use the population numbers from all states.  I have seen this tactic used repetitively on the local news and in the local paper.

This week the Fish and Wildlife Service released their mid-year estimate which indicates a decline in the wolf population from last year. Of course, one data point does not make a trend. In this case there are two data points, last years slower rate and this year's declining rate. It will be another year or two before we know for sure. A population can realize temporary setbacks a well. This could be one of those. A few years ago, Yellowstone National Park had a significant decline as there was an outbreak of Parvo virus killing many pups. Due to high adult mortality, a large number of pups are required to keep the population stable. Parvo virus can have a significant impact on the population numbers. Another factor is that so far this year the Wildlife Services have killed a record number of wolves at a record cost to taxpayers (don't get me started on that issue!).

Whether this is the year that the population stabilizes or it happens in two more years, it will happen. The wolves will be regulated by their prey, which is predominantly elk. The elk lived for 65 years in Idaho without wolf predators. Now that wolves are here, the elk are getting smarter and changing their behavior. Also, most of the old, sick, and dying elk have been cleaned up by the wolves. This is one of many positive impacts wolves have on elk health. The result is that Idaho will likely go through a transition similar to Yellowstone, the wolf population will peak and then settle down to 10-20% below that peak.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Idaho Wolf Field Trip

This weekend Karyn and I delayed our trip to help band hawks at the Idaho Bird Observatory and instead joined Defenders of Wildlife on a photography and wolf watching field trip.  We hope to make it to the bird observatory next weekend.

The Defenders event began with a photography workshop on Thursday night with local wildlife photographer Larry Thorngren.  The photography workshop was oriented more as a best practices session in wildlife photography than as a nuts and bolts photography class. Larry brought his portfolio along for our enjoyment as well.

Saturday was the field trip into the mountains to visit a wolf rendezvous site in the hopes of seeing wolves. A rendezvous site is a location that all of the wolves in a given pack know about and return to. This time of year it is where the pups (born in April) hang out. Later in the year, they may move to a different rendezvous site. For the wolf watching we were joined by an expert wolf biologist who's boss probably didn't want him talking to us.  Wolves are very, very political in this state.

Karyn decided we should take our camper van and stay in the area overnight.  The middle of the day is the least likely time to see wolves, so it warranted staying through the evening and morning to get more action. 

The wolf biologist was very patient educating the group on many aspects of wolves, the Idaho wolf reintroduction, and the current politics. He brought a few wolf pelts, a radio collar, tracking equipment, and demonstrated the trap that he uses to catch and collar wolves. In an interesting move he let the trap close on his hand to demonstrate that it was a reasonable safe way to capture wolves. The important part is to monitor your trap lines as soon as you can.

By the official end of the field trip 3pm, we had only seen one wolf wandering through some far trees. Some of the group had to leave to go back home.  Some stayed late into the evening for better viewing. The photographer had brought his camper and planned to stay with us.  Another woman, who lives just down the street from us, was so excited that she decided to sleep in her car over night. We pitched in some extra gear to make her stay more enjoyable.

On Saturday evening after all but 7 of us had left, 4 wolf pups started playing in the field before us. Two blacks and two grays.  They were too far away for any good photos, but I took some shots anyway. They appeared to be hunting ground squirrels. One adult wandered out of the woods to keep an eye on them.

Click to view full album: DefendersWolfTrip

Later a second adult wolf came out of the trees. All four pups ran over and solicited for food. They do this by taking a submissive posture and licking the mouth of the adult. If the adult had food he/she would have regurgitated it for them. All of the adults in a pack will do this.  It is not limited to the parents of the pups. Generally wolves returning from a hunt will feed the pups and any babysitter wolves who stayed behind. On this occasion it did not appear that there was any food available.

We watched until there was not enough light left to see. It was a beautiful evening, calm with the full moon raising over the meadow.  About 2am in the morning we awoke to a full pack howl.  Maybe they had just returned from a hunt, maybe they were just leaving on one, or maybe they were just howling.

Up before light in the morning, the meadow was covered in fog. We made our way to a slight rise to overlook the area.  Waves of fog were rolling through the meadow.  It was amazing to watch the wave propagate across the meadow and then move back much like ocean waves on the beach.  Once the sun hit the meadow it all lifted.  Unfortunately, there were no wolves to be seen.

On the home a few miles from the meadow we found some very fresh wolf tracks. They were following some very fresh elk tracks!

The various conservation groups have been petitioning the Idaho Fish and Game to establish wildlife viewing areas where wolf hunting would be restricted. Areas available to photographers to take photos or people who have never seen a wolf to watch in wonder as we were doing. Half of our group had never before seen a wild wolf. This is an amazing educational resource that our state possesses. If only our government could realize it. Unfortunately they are still focused solely on the eradication of wolves in Idaho.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Guilty, count one

My jury trial has come to a close, although the experience still lives on.

This is the second time I have sat on a jury.  The first was 19 years ago for a murder trial. On that occasion I spent three weeks in the courtroom and we returned a guilty verdict. While it was not enjoyable from a day to day perspective, the overall experience was very educational and mind opening. For that reason I generally encourage people to participate if provided the "opportunity".

The murder trial from years ago was the result of a prison riot. While it was emotional and did include disturbing content (actual tape recording of the murder itself), the fact that this occurred during a prison riot did provide some isolation from the event.  Justice was critically important, but it was bad guys killing bad guys.  There were no long term emotional implications on me personally.

This recent trial was quite different. The trial involved alleged sexual assault of a 7 year old girl by her father. I cannot think of more disturbing content that could be brought to trial, nor a more serious charge for all parties involved to be filed.

There were two counts brought against the defendant.  The jury found the defendant guilty on the first more serious crime. The second count, a lessor crime on a different date, resulted in a hung jury. The jury was fairly sure that it happened, but we could not agree on the conclusive evidence of the "intent" which was a requirement to convict on the second count.

I first must say that we had an excellent jury. It was filled with intelligent people who all took their responsibility very seriously. They all participated with the desire to learn, understand, and come to the right conclusions. The defendant received remarkable consideration and benefit of the doubt. The hung jury on count two is an example of the teams willingness to listen to each other, consider alternative perspectives, but make personal decisions and to stick by those personal decisions. If "group think" were involved we would have returned guilty on both counts.

I still, days after completion, think about this trial many times per day. I still wake up in the night with dreams about the trial. I still feel sad and depressed daily as a result of what we saw and listened to. I don't believe I will ever forget the sight of an eight year old girl testifying on this particular topic. Tears are coming to my eyes as I write this post.

While I generally consider myself to be an emotionally removed individual, this trial has had an unbelievable impact on my personal mental well being. I kept my outward emotions at bay during the entire trial and deliberation. Hours after the trial completed I was meeting with the teachers assistant for my biology lab. It was there that I first broke down. I am sure that he is wondering what type of whack job student he's teaching. To his credit he handled it very well.

Maybe someday I will look back and determine that I was glad that I participated (as I do with that 19 year old murder trial), but today I cannot imagine that happening. I do feel good that we have prevented future abuses of this child by her father, that we have put a guilty person of the most heinous crime behind bars for a very long time, but the cost to me personally has been and will continue to be very high.

I still think jury duty is a critical role for our society and the values of our constitution, so on that level I will still recommend active participation.  However, my endorsement will be less positive on the personal benefits and perspective gains of the individual.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

School: week 2

It was an exciting second week at school as I can now claim to be a straight A student! That could change any day now, but with my first graded elements in each class complete, I did achieve good scores.

This last week presented the first biology quiz of the semester on which I received a 100% result.  Woo Hoo!!! This next week includes our second biology quiz immediately followed by our first biology lab quiz. My standing could change quickly.

I also received the results of my first writing assignment on which I received a 95%.  This will likely be the greater challenge to maintain than the biology scores.

It was a fun week in biology.  The Tuesday night lab included 3 hours of microscope work exploring the different cell structures of various plants, bacteria, protists, and human cells. The lab included creating the slide samples, observation, then drawing and labeling these observations. Here is my first impressive artistic rendering of the night!


The biology lectures focused on the macromolecules which make up the foundation of cellular life - carbohydrates, nucleic acids, proteins, and lipids. At the end of Thursday's lecture we started into cell theory. On Tuesday will be a biology lecture quiz on two new chapters from the book, followed by a lab quiz.  The labs for Tuesday look interesting as we will explore osmosis and diffusion. It looks to be another very busy session with little time for contemplation.  That's my only complaint about the labs is that they are so packed with activities that there is little time to appreciate what process we are implementing. I guess there is just too much to learn.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Civic responsibility

I won the lottery! Actually I won that occasional lottery whose prize consists of you reporting in to jury duty service. The US Constitution guarantees a Trial by Jury. This jury is intended to be a jury of peers or common citizens.  The result is that citizens are occasionally chosen to fill the role of a juror.

I have been called into jury duty 4 times in my life.  The first, 18 years ago, resulted in me sitting on a 3.5 week murder trial where we found the defendant guilty of his crime.  On the other two occasions I was called in but released that day.  On both occasions I was released as they had chosen a jury before my number was called.

This week my number came up again. I was not called in on Tuesday, but was called to report Wednesday morning. There were just short of 100 people reporting in and my number was 76. The jury would consist of 13 people.  The final deliberation will only be twelve, but they include an alternate in case an emergency occurs for some individual prior to final deliberation. With a number that high I was sure that I would not be placed on the jury.

After our training we entered the courtroom where the judge asked a series of question of the jurors. Jurors started being excused for knowing people involved in the case, having critical work dependencies, scheduled weddings or funerals, or some bias that could affect their participation. A remarkably large number of people were excused. It appeared that many more people were asking to be excused due to bias once they realized the judge was not denying requests.  When this process was done, I was number 39 on the list. Still not likely to be chosen.

We then proceeded into the attorney questioning portion.  Each attorney received 1 hour to question the prospective jurors. When this was done, they each could make a number of eliminations. I was reasonably sure the defense attorney would eliminate me based on my prior experience in returning a guilty verdict. When all was done, I was the 13 and last juror chosen.  The defense attorney was probably out of challenges by that point. The next few days will find me fulfilling one of my constitutional duties for our country.